by Nicole Auerbach, USA TODAY Sports
Published: 03/01/2013 09:49am
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Jim Larranaga is a storyteller.
He gets comfortable on the couch in his office, leaning back into the memories, and lets the words roll off his tongue.
He talks about George Mason’s magical NCAA Final Four run in 2006, and how the flood of media attention mirrors what his seventh-ranked University of Miami team is receiving now.
He talks about the rousing speech Chris Bosh gave the Hurricanes the summer before Larranaga’s first season, and the influence the Miami Heat stars have had on his program.
He even talks about how copy-and-pasting his own Wikipedia page helped land him the job at Miami in 2011.
Despite the plethora of tales, perfectly timed and delivered with smiles and dramatic pauses, cataloging key moments of his career, Larranaga is missing one vital story.
He doesn’t remember how and when and why he was introduced to the world of advanced statistics.
He turns to his long-time assistant Chris Caputo in the hallway and asks about the first time they found kenpom.com, a website devoted to college basketball analytics. Caputo can’t remember, either. Maybe five years ago? Definitely after their staff discovered Synergy Sports, video-scouting software that compiles intricately detailed data on every team from every game situation imaginable.
Larranaga, now 63, was one of the earliest adopters of that technology, too. But even if he can’t remember what necessarily sparked his interest, he knows it stirred something within him.
Back in high school, Larranaga had wanted to win a free-throw shooting award, a prize completely based off percentages — “I’ve always been fascinated by numbers,” he said — and he shot 88% his senior season and won the award by a fraction of a point.
“If I’m going to be good, I’m going to judge myself against other players who are really, really good,” Larranaga said. He carried that into coaching. As an assistant at Virginia, he charted the performances of various lineups to figure out the most effective group of five. Compare, compare, compare. Then go with what works. Video might show him that now. Or a sheet of numbers from kenpom.com.
The use of such tools has propelled Miami to unprecedented success in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season. The Hurricanes’ 13-0 start in league play was the best of any team since 1998-99, and a win Saturday at No. 3 Duke would clinch the ACC regular-season title in this, Larranaga’s second year with the team.
“The thing with Coach is, as long as he’s been doing this, he’s never stopped learning,” Caputo said. “You’re looking, searching for things that will give you a bit of an edge. I think it was just word of mouth — there’s no great story.
“Looking at a team on a sheet, it’s a concise way of understanding. … A lot of times, you ask someone how they did on a test. They say, ‘Good.’ Well, what does that mean? A ‘C’? That’s pretty good, right? Not if everybody in the class got an ‘A’. Or I got a ‘C’, but everybody failed the test. You try to see the things you value … and then see where that ranks within your league and nationally. That tells you what your team is like.”
The Miami players hear about advanced statistics more than they see the numbers themselves. They aren’t given statistical printouts; they don’t get bogged down in the details. Their coaches tell them the important ones. This team is 50th in tempo, that team is 300th. This one is in the top 10 in offensive rebounding, that one turns the ball over on just 14% of possessions.
“They understand rank very well,” assistant coach Eric Konkol said. So the coaches toss the key stats in with normal prep work, like talking about opponents’ tendencies or watching video. Together, it provides a full picture of what the ‘Canes will be up against. Miami scouts its opponents, but it also self-scouts, tracking where it stacks up against the nation’s best to motivate itself.
Said senior Julian Gamble: “They give us those types of statistics to let us know where we are and where we need to improve. You want to be the best, and numbers don’t lie. If you say you’re not No. 1 in the country in something you want to be, you know you have something to improve on.”
Larranaga and his staff emphasize points per possession; it’s a good way to stress defense, something that players can rely on even when shots aren’t falling on a given night. On Tuesday, prior to the Virginia Tech game, Gamble recited a sentence that would please his coaches: “We’re 16-2 when we hold teams under one point per possession.” Make that 17-2 after the win over the Hokies.
Miami is ranked sixth in the country in defensive efficiency, 39th in offensive efficiency and 26th in turnover rate — all significant improvements from two seasons ago.
This lingo, while new to the Hurricanes, is far from foreign from those at George Mason, where Larranaga spent 14 seasons before coming to Miami in April 2011.
“He was innovative,” George Mason athletics director Tom O’Connor said. “He was focused on (advanced statistics), but that didn’t override the fact that he still had to go out there and teach offense and defense. It’s good to have all the statistics, and it can definitely be a major plus. I think he saw that early on. He’s always been ahead of the curve if he sees something that can help his program be successful.”
During the Final Four run of 2006, before he relied on advanced statistics, Larranaga’s attention to detail and search for any advantage manifested itself in scouting and game preparation. He also brought in a sports psychologist to talk to his team before the season.
“He adjusted well to every team,” said Will Thomas, a starter on the 2006 team. Thomas added that the points of emphasis were the same then as they are now: overall defensive toughness, rebounding and defending the 3-point line. Those same principles now show up in columns on kenpom.com.
“There are still coaches who don’t use email or coaches that don’t really like video spliced up because they like to get a feel for the how the whole game is played,” Konkol said. “There are certainly positives in every way you do it. It just comes down to being comfortable with your style. We’re very comfortable here at Miami using the stats.”
The ‘Canes have been as high as No. 2 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll, a landmark reached a week ago, before their Feb. 23 loss to Wake Forest. They are competing for a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, a remarkable feat for a group of players who never played in the event. They’re a veteran group (average age of the starting five? 22.6 years old) — yet are led by a sophomore point guard in Shane Larkin, a Naismith Player of the Year finalist and the son of Baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.
Perhaps, some day soon — or some day far off — Larranaga will have another story to tell. The story of this team and how these players bought into his world of numbers. How they taught LeBron James and Dwyane Wade a fancy dunk that one time. And maybe, just maybe, how they brought the Miami basketball program to prominence.